Lowest-rated Fall Classics still have upside

Lacking a marquee matchup or storied rivalry between two of baseball’s titans, this year’s World Series between Texas and St. Louis looks to be a contender for least-watched Series since Nielsen began tracking such things.

But the Fall Classic should still deliver auds that Fox and its advertisers can bank on, especially if the net catches a break and the Series runs longer than five games.

“In this 500-channel universe, the numbers that the World Series pulls in viewership are substantial year after year,” said Fox Sports Media Group vice chairman Ed Goren. “Some years are better than others — the more games you get, the better you’ll be — but it is still a major, major ratings attraction.”

Goren said it’s a “misconception” that the World Series is a ratings loser.

Admittedly, televised baseball suffers from an inferiority complex these days compared to the NFL, and a World Series without Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia reflexively triggers a flight impulse for some. But even if the numbers for this Series, which begins tonight, run ragged rather than robust, the broadcasts will be a success, Goren contended.

“First off, the World Series last year, we won primetime for the week,” Goren said. “Even last year’s World Series … was the eighth highest-rated show of the year.”

And, said Goren, ad sales testify to an enduring interest in the Fall Classic.

“In this soft economy, our sales guys sold out our postseason baseball earlier this year than quite possibly ever,” he said. “There’s not only enthusiasm from viewers, there’s enthusiasm from Madison Avenue.”

There is even some hope for Fox that this year’s Series might exceed expectations.

For one, there’s reason to expect plenty of attention-grabbing offense, as the Cardinals and the Rangers were among the highest-scoring in their respective leagues during the regular season. The Cardinals then averaged nearly seven runs per game in their six-game National League Championship Series victory over Milwaukee, while the Rangers tallied 6.5 per game in topping Detroit for the American League pennant.

Fox also has a star in the making in Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz — who broke a record held by Reggie Jackson, among others, by hitting six home runs in a postseason series — as well as an established star in St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols.

Most important to Fox and Goren, the World Series is long overdue for a Game 7, a prospect that would amp up interest among both baseball diehards and casual viewers outside the two teams’ home cities.

Baseball hasn’t had a winner-take-all finale since 2002, when the Angels edged San Francisco. (The Rangers are picked to win, but they face a hot Cardinals team that rallied in the final month of the NL wild-card race just to make the playoffs, then toppled favored Philadelphia and Milwaukee in two postseason series.)

Not only has Fox not seen a Game 7 in the life of its current eight-year, $720-million deal with MLB, it has seen only one Game 6 (in 2009). Six of the past seven Series have ended in five games or fewer — not exactly the way for the network to maximize its investment in the event (or to offset the upheaval it inflicts upon the primetime schedule).

Broadcasting the World Series for the 12th straight year, Fox has had two Game 7s in that span. Each of those topped the 30 million mark in viewers and built upon Game 6 viewership by at least 50%.

Last year’s World Series between the Rangers (who serve the No. 5 national market, Dallas-Fort Worth) and Giants averaged 14.3 million viewers, nearly an all-time low in the modern era — though that total includes 11.5 million for a Saturday Game 3 that was the earliest start for a Fall Classic game — 7 p.m. ET, an hour sooner than usual — in years. Game 1, also on a Wednesday, drew 15 million. By comparison, the 2009 World Series between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia averaged 19.4 million viewers (36% more), starting at 19.5 million for Game 1 and peaking at 22.3 million for Game 6.

Fox will begin its World Series coverage at 7:30 p.m. Eastern each night except for Sunday’s Game 4 (7:45 p.m.), which will compete with an NBC “Sunday Night Football” matchup between Indianapolis and New Orleans.

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